Walter Besant (1836-1901)

Image: memorial on the wall of Victoria Embankment, opposite Savoy Place. In 1935, Temple Pier was its proposed site; in the event, that became the site for the King George V Silver Jubilee Memorial.

From Wikipedia:

“Sir Walter Besant was an English novelist and historian. William Henry Besant was his brother, and another brother, Frank, was the husband of Annie Besant (nee Wood: socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer, orator, educationist, and philanthropist).”

From Britannica.com:

“Sir Walter Besant, (born August 14, 1836, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England—died June 9, 1901, London), English novelist and philanthropist, whose best work describing social evils in London’s East End helped set in motion movements to aid the poor…

In 1882 Besant published his first independent novel, entitled All Sorts and Conditions of Men and based on his impressions of the East London slums, which he saw as joyless rather than vicious places. The “Palace of Delights” that he projected in his book became a reality when the People’s Palace was founded (1887) in Mile End Road, London, in an attempt to provide education and recreation to the slum dwellers of the area; Besant cooperated in its establishment…”

Jacqueline Banerjee. PhD, Associate Editor, the Victorian Web, writes:

The People’s Palace, now the Queen’s Building, QMLU (Queen Mary University of London), Mile End Road, London, designed by E. R. Robson. 1886; rebuilt by Campbell-Jones and Smithers after a fire in 1931. By the 1880s, the south of London had the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, while the north had Alexandra Palace at Wood Green/Muswell Hill. Quite apart from all the theatres, museums and art galleries in the West End, plans were evolving for a new vast hall at Olympia, while J. R. Whitely had his sights set on another entertainment area which he hoped to open in 1886 — this would eventually become Earl’s Court. But what of the East End?…

…unbeknown to Besant, there was already a project afloat with the legacy of Barber Beaumont, a miniaturist and insurance magnate, who had founded the New Philosophic Institute in Mile End. The insitute had declined, but Beaumont’s fund was now being managed actively by Sir Edmund Hay Currie. Besant’s words pricked the conscience of a wider audience, drew in more donations, and influenced the kind of facilities the new “Palace of the People” was to offer. With its great hall, mighty organ, swimming pool, glass-covered winter garden and so on, it would become very like the “Palace of Delights” into which Besant’s heroine Angela (surely named after the real-life wealthy heiress/philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts) pours her large fortune.

…J. Mordaunt Crook writes:

E. R. Robson (1835-1917), best known for his work as architect to the London School Board, had projected a number of eclectic schemes — with echoes of both the Crystal Palace and the Beaux Arts — before securing agreement for his executed design. The rib-vaulted library was a classical version of the fourteenth-century Prior’s Kitchen at Durham. The Queen’s Hall outdid even Robson’s Prince’s Hall in Piccadilly. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1887, this “happy experiment in practical Socialism,” as The Times put it, set out — in darkest Mile End Road — “to sow the seeds of a higher and more humane civilisation among dwellers and toilers in [that] unlovely district”.

Robson would have needed no persuasion to produce an airy and open design, because he believed strongly in the importance of natural light and its influence on the atmosphere of a room and its occupants. Hence the very high windows of the typical Victorian school, for after his stint as architect to the London School Board (1871-1884), Robson was then consultant architect to the Education Department for another twenty years. His School Architecture (1874), along with his annual directives on school-building practice during the latter period, made him a hugely influential figure, leaving a legacy of distinctive, three-storey, red-brick Queen Anne style school buildings throughout the country.

…fire took its dreadful toll. In this case, however, what was left or rebuilt of the People’s Palace could be subsumed into the technical college opened alongside it in 1888. When the Master of the Draper’s Company, which had funded this institution, received the Charter of Incorporation of Queen Mary College London in 1934, the People’s Palace officially became a part of the University of London. In this connection, Mordaunt Crook writes, “What Imperial College is to West London, QMC is to the East. In other words, what the Imperial Institute was to Imperial College the People’s Palace was to QMC”. As a specialist in educational architecture, Robson would no doubt have been pleased with this development.”

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